Grilling meat, fish and vegetables is a great way to eat healthy without sacrificing flavor. It’s no surprise then that gas grills have become one of the most popular grownup toys in recent years. Head to any hardware store or home improvement center, and you’ll see big, gleaming gas grills lined up like new cars in a showroom, some with price tags that rival good used cars. If you’re ready to make the investment, you’ll find that a gas grill is excellent for outdoor entertaining and a great way to vary your cooking. Not sure much grill you need? Pronto’s Gas Grill Buying Guide can help (see also Electric Grill Buying Guide).
Purists favor charcoal, but gas grills are more reliable and faster to use than other grills. Worried about missing smoky flavors? Don’t be. Smoke equals flavor, and the fat drips down to the flames, causing smoke, the same way in gas as it does in charcoal. Hedge bets with gas grills that include separate smoking compartment.
For tailgating, camping, or areas with harsh weather choose a propane grill for portability. If you’ll only be grilling at home, consider a natural gas grill, which consumes a third less fuel but needs to be permanently installed and connected to a gas line.
Avoid gas grills that only have one burner, and try to purchase a grill with at least three. More burners allow for desirable zone cooking. Go for surface grates at least ¼”-1/2” wide, and avoid the small 1/8” grates. Beefier grates mean a better sear, and less food sticking. Cast iron, porcelain, and stainless steel are good surface grate choices.
BTU measurements for gas grills are a better gauge of fuel consumption than cooking performance. Look for gas grills that deliver 100 BTUs per square inch of primary cooking surface for the best results.
Stainless steel gas grills last longer in bad weather. Look for non-corrosive hood hinges, smooth joints and edges, and wood handles well away from hot surfaces as signs of a well-made gas grill.
British Thermal Units measure the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Farenheit. In gas grills, BTUs are an accurate measure of fuel consumption during grilling but offer few clues to performance.
The heating elements that provide the flame used in gas grills. Basic gas grills have two burners, while deluxe models can have four or more burners with separate temperature controls for each.
The outer casing of a gas grill. Castings can be made from cast iron, steel, stainless steel, or a metal alloy.
A battery-operated system that provides a spark to light the burners in a gas grill. Electric ignitions are more durable than manual spark ignitions in damp climates.
Also called cooking grates, these are the surfaces that hold food during grilling. The best grill plates have wide, tightly spaced ridges that prevent food from falling through to the burners.
The cooking area on a gas grill, measured in square inches. Primary grill surface is the area that gets hot enough for cooking. Secondary grill surface can be used for warming or resting food, but it doesn’t get hot enough for cooking.
A gas grill that must be hooked up to a natural gas line provided by a utility company. These gas grills are more efficient than propane models, but they require permanent installation.
A gas grill that runs on fuel from refillable propane tanks. Propane gas grills are portable but also less efficient than natural gas grills.
A gas grill heating element similar to those found on gas and electric stoves. Side burners can be used to keep foods warm or for cooking foods that are impractical to grill.
A gas grill lighting system that uses friction and a flint to generate a spark that lights the burners. Spark ignitions can be either rotary or push-button. These ignition systems will wear out over time and they are vulnerable to rain and snow.
The ability to control the temperature in different areas of the primary grill surface in a gas grill. Zone heating can be used to set gas grill burners at different temperatures or to set up different kinds of heating.
Barbecue purists scoff at anything that’s not charcoal, but gas grills offer you greater precision when it comes to grilling than the old-fashioned method. Gas grills are easy to use—no more fighting with lighting your charcoal (and keeping it lit), no waiting for coals to heat and no guessing at temperature. Gas grills perform well and at the push of a button, making them a better choice than charcoal for everyday use. Worried you’ll miss the smokiness that charcoal grills are famous for? Don’t be. Grilled flavor comes from smoke.
Flavor is largely imparted from the fat of the meat dripping down to the flame, which in turn, produces smoke and the flavor you want. Smoke equals grilled flavor. Most meats have some fat, and lean cuts of fish or veggies will benefit from olive oil coating before hitting the grille. Even small amounts of fat are enough to impart smoky grilled flavor. Some high end grills come equipped with smoking compartments to put the flavor back in which makes provides an insurance policy to having the best of both barbecuing worlds in your backyard.
Gas grills do have a tough time competing with charcoal in ultra high heat department. Charcoal will get very, very hot (even too hot) which allows for instant searing. Gas grills will certainly get hot enough to impart coveted grille marks to your food, but you will need to heat up the grill for at least 15 minutes to achieve the level of heat needed to compete with charcoal. Even then, your gas grill may not achieve the jet engine searing heat needed to pull off certain grill techniques (such as black and blue steak, or seared tuna very rare inside). Almost all home grillers find the heat of gas to be enough.
Another advantage of gas, is you can keep a searingly high level of heat indefinitely (until the gas runs out), whereas the high heat of charcoal starts to drop off quickly from it’s heat searing peak. Often with charcoal you will only have 15 minutes of high searing heat – bad if you have a lot of steaks to cook, or if you get chatting and miss the opportunity for high heat searing.
The biggest advantage of propane gas grills is portability. Smaller propane gas grills can fit in the car for camping and tailgating, but they lack the cooking surface area and heating controls found on larger gas grills.
A midsized propane gas grill is an excellent pick if you live in an area that’s rainy or has harsh winters. You can extend the life of these gas grills by moving them indoors. Never store propane tanks indoors. Disconnect them from the gas grill and ensure that they are turned off during outdoor storage.
Natural gas grills are far more energy efficient than propane gas grills. On average, a natural gas grill uses one third of the gas that a propane grill consumes, and you’ll never have to worry about a natural gas grill running out of fuel in the middle of a roast. Natural gas grills are not portable. They need permanent installation and a connection to a natural gas line, which leaves them vulnerable to the elements and requires some careful backyard planning to keep installation costs down.
Gas grills are rated for performance in British Thermal Units (BTUs), which is the amount of heat needed to raise one pound of water by one degree Farenheit. Practically speaking, BTUs offer little indication of how a gas grill performs and are a stronger indicator of a gas grill’s fuel consumption.
You’ll be able to tell how efficient a gas grill is by comparing BTU ratings. Translating that efficiency into performance is tricky, as it depends on the distance between the burners and the grill surface, the overall cooking surface area, and whether the hood is up or down.
The cooking surface of a gas grill is measured in square inches. Primary cooking surface is the grill area directly above or next to the burners. Some gas grill makers include the secondary cooking surface in their measurements, but this area is for warming, not cooking. What’s “good” gas grill performance? Look for around 100 BTUs per square inch of cooking surface.
The two most important features of a gas grill are the burners that provide the flame, and the grill surface grates that come in contact with your food. Look for burners that give you at least two zones of cooking, preferably three. With three zones of cooking you will be able to vary the temperatures in zones to efficiently cook high heat foods like meats, and lower zones for veggies, toasting rolls, or keeping cooked foods warm. If you want control over your grilling, avoid single burner models. However, if you just cook burgers and dogs, or stick to simple single temp foods, a single burner model will be okay.
The second most important feature is the grill surface, or grate. Heavier and beefier is better. Why? Heavy grill grates heat up more efficiently, and retain heat for more efficient searing. A well seared piece of food (especially fish and meat) will result in food that does not stick to your grill. Look for cast iron, porcelain, or stainless steel surface grates. Porcelain is a good choice because you have to worry less about rust, and it tends to offer a decent non-stick function. Cast iron is what some pros use, but requires vigilant grate cleaning (which is also a secret to non-stick grilling). Avoid the 1/8” small wire grates. For the best results, look for grates that are beefy, ¼” to ½” in diameter.
Gas grills have either a battery-operated electric ignition for lighting the gas or a pushbutton or rotary spark ignition. Look for a gas grill with electric ignition if you’ll be keeping it outside or plan to own it for five years or more, as gas grills with friction-based spark ignition can wear out or be damaged by the elements.
Hoods are a common feature on gas grills, as are shelves for holding food and utensils. Higher-end gas grills may include storage compartments, a side burner for warming or cooking, additional burners, and a rotisserie for poultry and ribs. Larger gas grills offer more cooking surface, which is a must for big backyard parties. Think about how often you plan to grill and how much food you’ll be grilling most of the time. Knowing this will help you narrow down your options and ensure you don’t buy more grill than you need.
Spending more on a gas grill doesn’t mean you’re getting a better gas grill. Material costs are the biggest influence on gas grill prices, with stainless steel and cast iron components adding significant cost.
Stainless steel gas grills resist corrosion better than steel or enamel models. Because of the high price of stainless steel, many gas grill makers are using alloys or lower-quality stainless steel. Look for gas grills made with 300 grade stainless for the highest corrosion resistance and durability.
Gas grills should have sturdy hood hinges made from corrosion-free materials. The edges and joints of gas grills should be smooth with no sharp, protruding edges. Look for good separation between the burners and the grilling surface to avoid flare-ups caused by dripping fat and juices.
Some gas grills pack an entire kitchen’s worth of features, including cold storage, condiment trays, and additional burners. All of these features add significantly to the cost of a gas grill, so it’s worth considering how much you need them before buying. You already have a kitchen and, most likely, some grilling tools, so don’t be lured by “value” packages that pair an inferior gas grill with a lot of accessories. Buy a gas grill based on performance first.